“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” Martin Luther King Jr. said that in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, but I like to imagine that civil rights activist Lamar Smith thought that every day as he urged blacks to vote in 1955 in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Against the threat of violence, he helped blacks register and vote safely.
For that, he was killed in front of Brookhaven’s courthouse at 10 in the morning.
For most people (or at least the most vocal), the Star-Spangled Banner and the United States Flag are our freedoms distilled into word and cloth and won by the hard and battle-worn men and women in uniform. Disrespect the Flag or the Anthem and you disrespect the military that has bled for you and your freedoms.
However, those in the military are not the only ones who have bled for this country, who have given the ultimate sacrifice for America. Lamar Smith was among the first of many and countless more.
Herbert Lee, a NAACP member, was followed by Mississippi State Legislator E.H. Hurst and subsequently killed. Hurst claimed self-defense despite witnesses to the contrary. One of the witnesses was Louis Allen. Given the time and place, Allen and the other witnesses were pressured into giving false testimony. Hurst went free.
Allen would later speak to the FBI about testifying in exchange for protection as he rightfully feared his life. No protection would come. Allen was killed by two shotgun blasts to the head. No arrests were made, of course. The sheriff, Daniel Jones, stated “if Louis had just shut his mouth, he wouldn’t be layin’ there on the ground. He wouldn’t be dead.”
Williams Lee Moore, a postal worker and member of the Congress of Racial Equality, planned to march from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to hand deliver a letter to Governor Ross Barnett. Just over 70 miles into his trek, Moore was shot twice in the head by a .22 caliber rifle at close range. He died a week later. The gun’s owner, Floyd Simpson, had gotten into an altercation with Moore earlier in the day, and, of course, no charges were filed. After Moore passed, his letter was opened and in it, Moore said that “the white man cannot be truly free himself until all men have their rights.”
A few hours after President Kennedy gave his Civil Rights Address on television, Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP, was walking up to his home when he was shot through the heart by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council. Evers was no stranger to violence at the time. A Molotov cocktail was thrown into his carport and he was nearly ran over by a car after leaving a NAACP office. Beckwith was prosecuted twice in 1964, but both ended in a deadlock with all white juries. He wouldn’t be convicted until 1994.
Ben Branch, a saxophonist and bandleader, stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was all set to perform at an event later that night. Martin Luther King Jr. came out onto the balcony with Ben and told him, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Those were Luther’s last words before he was assassinated on that balcony.
America’s freedoms have been fought and won by the unsung and the forgotten. Serving in the military is not a prerequisite to securing our freedoms. Sometimes, you just have to be a person willing to do the right thing. Of course, you don’t have to put your life in danger to make change happen. Not everyone can take on that kind of sacrifice. You just have to ask yourself what are you doing for others?
If you want to know more about the Forgotten, please visit Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial.